David Rozenson, a St. Petersburg-born Jewish educator and activist, recently received an award from the World Wide Association for St. Petersburg Leadership in a ceremony at the Hermitage Museum. Rozenson spoke with a journalist about his experiences growing up as a Jew in Communist Russia and his return after the collapse of the Soviet regime to help revive Jewish life (interview by Baila Olidort):
As head of the Avi Chai Foundation’s office in the former Soviet Union, I met with many individuals, and rarely found disrespect toward projects that brought Jewish/Israeli education and culture into the public sphere, even in places where formerly anything that related to Jewish life was taboo.
Among the projects that I worked on, for example, we tried to help attain legitimate status for academic Jewish life. Following much back and forth, we came into a dialogue on the matter with the rector of the St. Petersburg State University, a university where my mother, as a Jew, was not accepted to study medicine in her youth. . . . After some hesitation, he eventually agreed to open a full-fledged Department of Jewish Culture in a university where one would never imagine that the study of Judaism could be a legitimate academic pursuit.
Many other projects, religious and academic in nature, drawing Russian Jews who otherwise never would have taken part in Jewish activity or acknowledge their Jewish identities, have since opened. Twenty years ago this would have been impossible to imagine. And consider the number of synagogues, community centers, Jewish day schools, programs for Jewish youth that have sprouted in Russia. True, the political and economic situation is difficult; we must keep our eyes wide open. But we must also be fully appreciative of these developments.